In the Garden:
Upper South
May, 2012
Regional Report

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Add elephant ears to your garden for a bold, beautiful look. Photo courtesy All rights reserved.

The Elephant in the Garden

Thinking maybe you'd like to add some visual drama to your garden this year? One spectacular way to add an over-sized exclamation point to the garden is with elephant ears. These are giant tropical plants grown for their large, heart-shaped leaves, sometimes reaching to 2 feet across on plants growing to 5 feet or taller. They can be grown in garden beds or in pots. Some people like to place the pots directly in the beds, while others prefer to include them on patios, decks, or balconies. Wherever they're placed, elephant ears are prized for adding life and movement to the garden.

Best of all, according to Hans Langeveld of Longfield Gardens (, an online retail source for bulbs and perennials, is that elephant ears "seem to handle most any sort of light, performing admirably in deep shade, partial shade, and filtered sun. Many will handle full sun, too, when kept watered and out of intense heat."

Growing Elephant Ears
The most well-known of elephant ears is Colocasia esculenta, or taro, grown as a food crop throughout Asia and the Pacific Islands. If you've visited Hawaii, you may have had taro served as the fermented food called poi. (Don't try this at home, as the roots are poisonous if not prepared correctly, due to the calcium oxalate crystals.) The plants are grown from a tuberous root about the size of a large onion. In the spring, garden centers and mail-order bulb companies have these tubers for sale.

From the six species of colocasia, plant breeders have developed dozens of varieties with differences in the color of the leaves and stems as well as size of the leaves and plants. For instance, the popular variety 'Black Magic' has dark plum-colored leaves with burgundy-black stems, while the green leaves of 'Mojito' are covered with dark purple flecks. The variety 'Ruffles' is noted for the highly scalloped edges of its leaves.

Most colocasias are only hardy to 10 degrees F, so many of us have to bring the tubers indoors for the winter. The exception is a new variety called 'Bikini-tini', which can tolerate winter temperatures to -10 degrees F.

Because they are tender tropical plants, elephant ears are not planted outdoors until all danger of frost is past and the soil is warm. They can also be started earlier indoors, about 4 to 6 weeks before outdoor planting time. Plant the bulbs 2 to 4 inches deep. Whether in the garden or in pots, elephant ears do best with soil that has plenty of compost. Because they grow so fast and large, it's best to feed them regularly during the growing season with a water-soluble plant fertilizer high in nitrogen, following manufacturer's directions. Another key to success is to provide plenty of water. In fact, as long as the tuber is not submerged, elephant ears can be grown in water, as a marginal plant along the edge of ponds.

In the fall in colder areas, cut off the foliage and dig the tubers if growing in the garden, let dry, and store at 45 to 55 degrees F in closed containers of peat or vermiculite. If growing in containers, the tubers can be dug and stored as above or the entire pot can be stored. The exception to this rule are the varieties with highly colored leaves, such as 'Black Magic' or 'Nancy's Revenge'. These should be kept slightly moist during the winter.

Whether you decide to grow the widely available species of colocasia or some of the more exotic variations, elephant ears will delight you with its lush growth and tropical appearance. The large leaves, bobbing and swaying in the breeze, will provide just the right touch to make your garden a paradise this summer.

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